After descending the rusted ladder into the maintenance shaft of the building that once housed the elaborate steam heating system, Hironah found herself in utter darkness. She closed the grate above, and though cold seeped in, no light could reach her. She felt Uneme stir, grope for her in the blackness that defied even the darkest night. His arms encircled her, holding her tightly. He kissed her with a furious passion that ached of potential finality. She echoed him, knowing they would express neither love nor longing until this was over, and only then if they survived. When they broke from one another, Uneme began to feel his way along the wall until he came to the trapdoor that led into the tunnels. It was heavy and made of iron, sealed by weight and time.

     Like the grate above, he soaked its hinges in oil, waiting patiently for the lubricant to take effect. Once he was satisfied, he hefted the trapdoor open. Feeling about in the dark, he crawled through. Following the sounds he made, Hironah went after.

     The lack of light became perfectly complete without the grate above them to allow in the feeble moons. The air smelled stagnant and dusty. Hironah eased the trapdoor shut and for a moment her mind was filled with closures- the silent boxes that held the ashes of Kaiya and Yoshiki gently sealed by Tamaki’s hands, the soft sound of Blue’s bedroom door sliding shut as Seiken left him to die, Yume’s eyes gone blank with confusion and terror, the clicking noise that signaled the death of a conversation by telephone. She shuddered, knowing full well that if she died here, lost beneath the Imperial Palace, no one would ever find her. She may have just sealed her own tomb.

     Putting aside her morbid thoughts, Hironah turned to where she thought Uneme stood. At the sound of the trapdoor closing, he flicked on a flashlight, allowing them to take stock of their surroundings.

     “It’s only for a little while,” he cautioned in a whisper. “We’ll have to turn it off once we get near the Palace.”

     Hironah nodded, looking around. They stood underneath the building that had once housed the boiler. It was a crossroads of tunnels, each leading off in a different direction. It had the feeling of a buried atrium, some structure that had once stood on land but had been condemned to the ground by some catastrophe. The darkness pressed heavily against the beam of the flashlight, giving her the impression that the walls around her were painted black.

     Uneme closed his eyes, blocking out the light and his surroundings. He turned slowly once, and halfway around again before he stopped.

     “The Palace is this way,” he informed Hironah, who had no idea how he knew, confused as she was by being thrust underground. “The tunnel here should lead to it.”

     He started off without hesitation. Hironah had no choice but to follow. She was surprised to learn that the tunnels were perfectly rectangular, with distinct walls, floors and ceilings. She’d been expecting something more cave-like, or at least more rounded.

     As they made their way along, fighting the darkness with the flashlight, she relaxed somewhat. So long as they didn’t become lost, they had little to worry about down here. There was nothing more than rats and cobwebs. They moved as silently as possible, though this was unnecessary. The tunnel devoured sound, muffled it in the black belly of the planet. She’d expected their footfalls to echo, but they did not, cushioned as they were by the packed dirt floor.

      They walked on in silence for what felt like an eternity, though it couldn’t have been longer than fifteen minutes, slightly longer than it would’ve taken them to walk to the Palace above ground. Signaling Hironah, Uneme stopped.

     “We’re almost there, if this is the right tunnel,” he whispered. “Be prepared. If the way into the Palace is guarded, we’re going to have to fight- and make it quick. One wrong move and we’ll have the entire Imperial Guard on us.”

     Hironah nodded, her eyes wide.

     “We’re doing this for Diasminion. The gods are on our side.”

     “I sure hope so,” she whispered in reply, though she seriously doubted that the gods gave a rat’s ass what they were doing. She knew through Blue’s teachings that the gods rarely showed interest in the fleeting lives of the people of Qian Ra, other than for their own amusement. However, if the thought that the gods watched over them gave Uneme peace, she did not want to dispute it.

     “Ready?”

     “Ready.”

     Uneme turned off the flashlight, plunging them into darkness so thick that Hironah was unable to make out any part of her own body, let alone Uneme’s. Not even the whites of his eyes were visible. For a fleeting moment, Hironah understood what it meant to be blinded completely, and she felt a sudden sympathy for Seiken. Unlike Hironah, who knew she would emerge from the blackness, he’d been forced to accept his eternal curse. Momentarily furious with herself for recalling the Decameron, whose memory flitted about her like a vengeful spirit, Hironah shook her head. Feeling her motion, Uneme reached out and fumbled for her hand, squeezing it.

     He drew her forward through the impenetrable curtain of darkness. After a few moments, he slowed dramatically, feeling along the ground with his feet. Eventually, they reached the place where his foot struck the first of the stairs that led up into the basement of the Palace, or so they hoped. Wherever that narrow flight of steps might lead, they followed it upward, groping, one behind the other.

     They emerged in another tight space, knowing that the stairs had ended only by the leveling of the ground beneath their feet. Uneme continued to edge forward, his hands spread out before him. He sought a break in the unending nothingness until his fingertips brushed against a flat surface. The sensations against his skin told him it was wood, polished- odd for a basement door. He went on with his exploration, Hironah lightly pressed against his back. The object before him was not a door, but a large piece of furniture, possibly a cabinet or wardrobe. He felt to its edges, searching for any free space that would allow them to pass. He discovered the two and a half foot gap between the ponderous wooden structure and the rough-hewn stone walls. Holding his breath, he squeezed his way through.

     Hironah followed behind, emerging in a vast, cluttered area. High above, narrow, oblong windows let the ambient white of the floodlights outside into the basement where they stood. After the pitch-black of the tunnel, this light allowed her to see clearly once her eyes had adjusted. The room in which they’d arrived was enormous, filled with all manner of strange and mundane items. All but the most unwieldy of them were stored on shelves and in boxes, creating a maze of organization that gave the impression of a library. It seemed they were alone. There were no sounds of footsteps, nor any other hint of humanity.

     Uneme began to creep forward, carefully observing his surroundings.

     “There are a lot of exits from the basement into the Palace,” he’d explained to Hironah as they rode the train. “We don’t want to take just any of them. Since we want to get as near to the Imperial Family’s living quarters as possible, we should try to find the entrance into the kitchens. We’ll have to use our intuition, judge our location by the things in the basement around us. We’ve both got a basic knowledge of the layout of the Palace, but that may not help us much after being underground. Our sense of direction might be confused.”

     They inched along, taking note of the clutter that surrounded them. At the point when they began to notice boxes of office supplies and equipment, reams of paper and a variety of electronics in need of repair, Uneme shook his head. They were going the wrong way. They backtracked and continued on in the oppressive silence of forgotten things. Hironah began to give up hope until finally there appeared in the gloom signs that they were nearing their goal. A stack of antique china here, an old and battered cooking pot there- these were the signposts that pointed their way. She breathed a silent sigh- half from relief and half from foreboding- once they’d reached the foodstocks and collection of lesser-used utensils. They began to search for the stairs, which Hironah located between two shelves of flour, rice and gigantic jugs of oil and sauce.

     They ascended the steps cautiously. Near the top, Uneme signaled Hironah. Though it was the middle of the night, the Imperial Family kept a servant on call all night, in the event one of them woke feeling peckish. The odds were in favor of the old cook sleeping peacefully in her room adjoining the kitchen, but still they needed to proceed with care. There was no way of getting a full view of the room. Uneme saw no light coming from the crack beneath the door, and so he opened it slowly.

     The industrial sized kitchen was dark and silent. Putting a finger to his lips and pointing to the door behind which the cook surely slept, Uneme tiptoed across the vast expanse to the door that would bring them one step closer to their goal.

     “That’s where your knowledge becomes most important,” Uneme had said the night before. “I’ve only been in the Palace once, but you used to visit there frequently when you were younger. You’ll know which way we should go, where the members of the family will be, and you know better than I do what Harata’s habits are.”

     Together they pushed the swinging door that led to the hallway and peered out, only after listening for sounds of a patrol on the other side. The hallway was deserted, which didn’t surprise Hironah at all. It was used primarily by servants, who by day would scurry these back corridors out of sight of the lavish walkways traversed by the Imperial Family or -at one time- their guests. Long ago, Hironah had navigated these hidden corridors with her cousins in order to sneak cookies from the kitchen. There would be a stair here that led upward through the building.

     There were three wings in the residential portion of the Palace. The furthest from where they stood was used by the children of the Emperor. Beside it was that of the Empress and the nearest was that of the Emperor, so that his every whim might be fulfilled by the army of servants as quickly as possible. Harata secretly found this formality ridiculous. It had taken him years to get used to asking the servants for anything at all. His wife called on them far more frequently, but when he’d suggested swapping wings with her, the old retainer nearly died of shock. It was against decorum, he explained once he’d recovered, and besides, there was tradition to think about. The Emperor’s wing had always been that one, since the construction of the Palace hundreds of years before. It simply could not be rearranged. Harata laughed at the irony that he had the power to bring change to an entire country, but not his own home.

     Hironah led Uneme to the staircase and held up three fingers. Uneme shook his head and held up two. She made a negating motion with her hand and signaled,

     Guards.

     He looked at her, puzzled. Again, she held up three fingers. Shrugging in confusion, he nodded.

     They ascended the steps, which were carpeted to muffle the sound of trampling servant feet. It was easy to proceed in silence. When they reached the landing of the third floor, Hironah signaled Uneme to wait and peeped around the corner. When she ducked back, his hands formed the question,

     Guards?

     She shook her head “no”, but grasped him as he made to move forward.

     Patrol will come, she signed. Wait until gone.

     The wait seemed to drag on for hours. Hidden in the stairwell, Uneme and Hironah listened for the sound of approaching footsteps which finally fell on their ears. They waited for the patrol to pass. After it had, Hironah signed,

     Four minutes.

     It was the length of time they had before the patrol would be along again, ample time for them to accomplish what she had in mind. Dropping down on her belly, she motioned for Uneme to do the same. He obeyed her without question. Once they were in the hall, which consisted of a row of doors on one side and the marble rail of a balcony on the other, she pointed at a door, held up five fingers, and pointed down the walkway. She reiterated the need to remain as flat against the ground as possible, pointing at the balcony and signing,

     Guards below can see.

     Uneme nodded his understanding.

     They crawled down the walkway to the opposite end of the Emperor’s wing of the Palace. Hironah’s throat filled with fear. This is where they were most likely to be caught. There were too many unknown conditions for comfort. The patrols could’ve been increased, or the guards in the atrium below could be watching this floor attentively. If that was the case, they’d surely notice the door opening when she and Uneme reached it. In her mind, she repeated a litany of prayers, simultaneously begging Blue to watch over her.

     When they arrived at the door Hironah had indicated, she reached up and turned the knob. Unlocked, it opened with the slightest creak. Not daring to breathe, she slinked inside, Uneme close behind. Closing the door without a sound, the two stood up behind it. They listened carefully to the silence for any indication they’d been noticed. No sound reached them. Letting out her breath, Hironah slumped against the door. Unbeknownst to them, the movement on the second floor had been spotted by a young guard on the first floor. Yet the nocturnal ramblings of the Emperor had grown so frequent in the past months, such movement was a common occurrence. Tired of being reprimanded for his eagerness to make reports, the guard took note of the door, but didn’t mention it.

     The room in which Uneme and Hironah stood was bathed in moonlight. Along one wall was a row of bookshelves and cabinets filled with sculptures and other objects d’art. Paintings hung above them. They were standing on a balcony overlooking the rest of the Emperor’s library, which took up two stories. Once she’d recovered, Hironah led the way to the staircase that would take them back to the second floor.

     In this way, Hironah had figured out how to avoid the heavily guarded main corridor of the second floor. From the library they could use a side exit into the small hallway that would take them to the bedroom of the Imperial couple, which is where Harata was sure to be, given the time of night. The bedroom, at the far end of the Emperor’s wing, was located to conjoin that wing and the one belonging to the Empress. The small corridor was not easily visible from the atrium below. Peering out the door of the library, Hironah saw- to no surprise- that the entrance to the bedroom was guarded. Two men stood stiff and rigid at either side of the door. Before she could make a move, Uneme stopped her. Holding out his hand, he showed her something that she couldn’t identify. It was a thin wooden cylinder, about a hand-span in length. He moved in front of her, still hidden in the shadows of the library’s doorway.

     He raised the polished wooden cylinder to his lips and exhaled sharply. Down the hall, one of the guards flinched. He raised his hand to finger the feathered shaft of the dart that protruded from his neck and then toppled to the floor. The second guard was felled by the same means long before he had a chance to react.

     Without a moment to ponder the strange weapon, Hironah was dragged from the doorway by Uneme. The two hurried down the hall to the bedroom door and entered without a second of hesitation. They’d set off their own countdown. They needed to reach Harata before the guards were discovered. How much time they’d be afforded was unknown to them. Fortunately, they’d reached the place where they’d find the Emperor. It was now in Harata’s hands whether or not they’d leave the Palace with their lives.

     Together they crept across the floor of the lavish room. They looked down into the spacious bed, but were unable to make out the forms that lay on it. Silently, Uneme crossed to the window and gently moved aside the curtain to let in the light of the moons and floodlights. Hironah nearly bit her tongue in frustration.

     The Empress slept alone.

     Uneme let the curtain fall back into place. For a moment, the two stood facing each other, unmoving. Hironah wracked her brains. What was the second most likely place Harata would be? She’d been so sure he’d be asleep, she hadn’t taken the time to consider he might be someplace else. Cursing her own lack of foresight, she signaled to Uneme.

     Back to library. Hide guards.

     He nodded and they turned to leave.

     Kat, who had once been a heavy sleeper, had developed a fear of being killed in her slumber during her time as a Champion and the turbulent years that followed. It was a terror she’d never been able to shake, no matter the number of guards or the comfort of knowing that Harata slept at her side. Since the death of her son and the separation from her husband, she hadn’t had a night’s unbroken sleep, either waking from horrific nightmares or from the noises of the changing guards outside. The slight sounds, the miniscule changes in the light brought on by Hironah and Uneme were enough to wake her. She sat up quickly, peering about in the darkness, clutching the winter blankets to her chest.

     “Harata?” she called hopefully, fumbling for the switch on the bedside lamp.

     Hironah and Uneme both froze in place. The bitter realization that they were about to be caught settled into them, filling their mouths with bile. As the light bathed the room with a soft glow, Kat gasped, shocked by the sight of the people standing in her bedroom.

     “Hironah?” Her voice quavered. “What are you doing here?”

     “We’ve come to see Harata,” Hironah replied, feeling somewhat sheepish. “Sorry to wake you. We thought he’d be in here.”

     Kat, though groggy from sleep, was not fooled by her casual tone.

     “Who let you in at this hour?”

     “Well… um… nobody,” Hironah confessed. “We kinda snuck in.”

     “You… you did?” Kat’s voice was incredulous. “The guards-”

     “I’m terribly sorry, Your Highness,” Uneme interrupted with a formal bow, “but I’m afraid I was forced to dispatch the men guarding your door.”

     “I don’t believe this.”

     “We didn’t have any other choice. It’s imperative that we meet with the Emperor. Knowing that we’d only be turned away no matter how many times we tried more conventional methods, we decided to sneak in through the tunnels on the Palace grounds.” As an afterthought, Uneme added, “You really ought to have those blocked or filled in, or at least guarded. They’re a serious security breach.”

     Kat was staring hard at Uneme.

     “What is it that you need to speak to Harata so badly about that you’d risk your lives to see him?”

     “We’re here to save him.”

     “Save him? What are you talking about?”

     “We believe the Emperor is in great danger- from Caiaphas.”

     Kat turned her gaze back to Hironah.

     “You were already here to talk to Harata about that. He’s been warned. He knows.”

     “He was… he was awfully strange when we were here. He acted like he didn’t even care.” Hironah spoke softly. “He wouldn’t tell Kaiya why he’d locked down the Palace, and he refused to let me see any of you.”

     “We’re afraid that Caiaphas has already gotten to the Emperor,” Uneme explained. “He could be the one who’s forcing him to act so strangely. We’ve come to learn once and for all whether or not that’s the case. If it is, we’re going to free Harata, or die trying.”

     Kat was silent for a time. When she spoke again, her voice was low.

     “I ought to call the guards and have you arrested. You both sound like a couple of raving lunatics. But I know this Caiaphas.” She shuddered involuntarily. “I know what he did to Blue. I saw with my own eyes what he did to the Attendants of the Guardians. I faced one of his denizens while trying to reach the lair of the Guardians, where they’d been attempting to hold the Negative Force that had grown in the world at bay. And I know Harata. I’ve seen the changes that have come over him in ways that the two of you would never notice. So I’m going to help you, in the hopes that you are not mad, and that perhaps, just perhaps, you’ll be able to reach him where I myself have failed.”  

 

 

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